Animals on the lam: Welfare group documents exotic animal escapes, attacks

Have you heard about the alligator that escaped a truck in Montreal and went for a stroll?

A lot of Canadians have heard of Darwin, the Ikea monkey, who was found wandering a parking garage at the furniture chain’s North York store wearing a shearling coat and a diaper.

Many were equally fascinated and horrified last December after a kangaroo named Nathan escaped as he was being transported between zoos and went on the lam in Oshawa, Ont., in frigid winter temperatures.

But have you heard about the alligator that escaped a truck in Montreal and went for a stroll to a nearby café? Or the tiger that had had enough of his pen at an eastern Ontario zoo and was found trotting along a nearby highway?

In a bid to draw attention to the ongoing and dangerous problem of keeping exotic wildlife in captivity, either in zoos or as house pets, World Animal Protection Canada is building a new database and interactive online map to document all the events it can find.

So far it has documented more than 200 exotic animal escapes, attacks and disease outbreaks in Canada over the last 40 years. That’s just the first run. It’s finding more to add all the time.

The database shows an average of 12 incidents a year in the last decade.

Michèle Hamers, wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection Canada, said she comes across incidents of wildlife escapes and attacks regularly.

“I’ve noticed that when it’s reported on, it’s either a cutesy story, like it’s kind of funny,” she said. “You know, kangaroo escaped, ha ha, without thinking about animal welfare implications or things like that.”

She said it also is often reported “as a one-off” event that doesn’t happen often.

“Which is absolutely not the case,” she said.

Hamers said the hope is the database will draw outrage and compel people to ask for more comprehensive laws to protect animals and people.

The escapes or attacks involve animals kept as pets and also those kept in zoos, including highly rated ones like the Toronto Zoo and smaller operations usually referred to as roadside zoos.

Sometimes the escapes terrify strangers, like the man in Scarborough, Ont., who in 2018 went to pick his phone off the floor in the middle of the night, only to discover a ball python wrapped around the charging cord.

The snake escaped a neighbouring apartment through the walls.

Or the 11-year-old girl in Hamilton who got out of her backyard pool and spotted a 1.5-metre-long alligator beside her house. She thought it was a pool toy until it moved.

Police said it likely escaped from a nearby home where it was being kept as a pet.

Ball pythons are legal pets in Toronto. Alligators are not legal in Hamilton.

While many provinces have limitations on which animals are allowed, Ontario does not. That means municipalities are left to decide, which leaves a patchwork of rules and a lot of confusion.

“There are a lot of municipalities making up their own rules, it’s a nightmare for enforcement officers,” Hamers said.

And she added that laws are only good if they are enforced, which often doesn’t happen due to a lack of staff and money. Enforcement often only takes place after an escape or attack.

Hamers said many of the laws also still allow for a lot of wild animals to be kept as pets, but most of those animals do not thrive in captivity.

“There will be escapes and attacks and other things happening because we’re still allowed to keep the majority of wild animals out there,” Hamers said.

Of the 209 incidents documented in the database so far, 86 involved snakes, 20 involved tigers, 12 involved lions, and there were nine monkeys, six alligators and seven elephants.

There were 138 events that involved an exotic animal escaping or being purposely dumped, and 29 incidents where a person was attacked. Some of those were by escaped animals, others by animals held in unsafe enclosures that allowed people to get too close.

In many cases where an exotic animal escapes, it doesn’t end well for them. Wolves and tigers have been shot to protect people or other animals from being attacked. Sometimes they freeze to death, unable to handle Canada’s climate.

In one case, a jaguar that escaped from a magic show had a heart attack and died from the stress of being chased to be recaptured.

Over the years, multiple people have been hospitalized or killed from exotic animal attacks or exposures.

In 2013, an African rock python slithered out of his enclosure in a pet store and killed Noah and Connor Barthe, aged four and six, who were sleeping in the apartment upstairs in New Brunswick.

In 2004, a 10-year-old was hospitalized after being attacked by a neighbour’s tiger who was being walked on a leash on a property in Southwold, Ont.

An outbreak of salmonella connected to exotic snakes kept as house pets has made 76 people in eight provinces sick since 2022, and one-third of them were children under the age of five. Ten people have been hospitalized and one has died.

In November of last year, a woman in Latchford, Ont., north of Sudbury, was bitten by a one-armed baboon named Mark, who had escaped his nearby home.

Oftentimes an incident does prompt a city or province to promise action. New Brunswick passed a new exotic animals law in 2017 in response to the death of the Barthe boys. But Hamers said to date the law still does not have the required regulations attached to give it any teeth.

Kirkland Lake, which is near Latchford, where Mark the baboon escaped, is moving to update its exotic animal laws as a result of that incident. But it is also pushing the provincial government to do something to make things more uniform across the province.

Similar calls have come from other municipalities faced with animal cruelty cases and complaints from neighbours. In 2021, public health officers visited a property in Maynooth, Ont., near Algonquin Provincial Park, where a couple kept lions, tigers and lemurs.

They found that the lions had escaped their enclosure and attacked and killed a tiger. They also reported that there wasn’t enough food or water available for the big cats, and that the lemurs were being fed sugary breakfast cereal.

Hamers said the best exotic animal laws would ban all non-native animals from captivity and then make a limited list of what could be allowed. She said right now most existing laws have lists of what is banned, leaving lots of animals still to be exploited.

“In British Columbia, there’s a great example of how they came up with the list, I think it has like 1,200 different species, but not capybaras, not servals,” said Hamers. “And guess which type of animals are now very popular in the pet trade.”

There have been multiple serval escapes in recent years, including in B.C.

Hamers is hopeful that the online map will compel people to write in with incidents of animal escapes or attacks that they know about and aren’t yet included. She also hopes people who want to see an end to the captivity of exotic animals will step up and demand change from governments.

She said every level of government has a role to play, and that the “patchwork” of laws needs to be resolved.

“We want to see the federal government step up and to bring provinces together to discuss this issue and to really make sure that we have a united approach to the captive wildlife trade. Animals should be treated similarly. A bear in Nova Scotia has the same needs as a bear in Alberta. It shouldn’t matter where they are in captivity, we should be taking care of them in a similar way.”

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press